Let me tell you about a bespectacled young schoolboy with a pet owl who finds out one day that he’s a wizard – and no, I’m not talking about Harry Potter! Timothy Hunter is the star of Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series The Books of Magic, which tells the story of a young boy who has the potential to become the world’s greatest sorcerer. Despite the striking superficial similarities between Timothy Hunter and Harry Potter, The Books of Magic actually came into being several years before J K Rowling’s creation was released on an unsuspecting world. The similarity was once noted by a journalist from The Scotsman newspaper, who asked Gaiman if he thought Rowling was aware of his 1990 comic, to which Gaiman replied that he ‘wasn’t the first writer to create a young magician with potential, nor was Rowling the first to send one to school’. Gaiman’s view, with which I tend to agree, is that whether or not Rowling had read The Books of Magic, the similarities most likely result from both it and the Harry Potter series being inspired by similar works, in particular those of T H White (author of The Once and Future King). The idea that Rowling and Gaiman were were both simply ‘drinking from the same well’ is supported by the prevalence of common archetypes from myth and fantasy in both their works.
Tolkien used the term ‘Necromancer’ in The Hobbit as an alias for Sauron, his chief villain in The Lord of the Rings. The ‘Dark Lord’ Sauron is depicted as having an unnatural power over death – most notably in the form of his chief ‘undead’ henchmen, the Nazgul or Ringwraiths. Similarly, in other fantasy novels and role-playing games in which necromancers have appeared, the word has been used to describe mortal practitioners of death magic. For example, there is Sabriel by Garth Nix, Gail Z Martin’s Chronicles of the Necromancer and the Flesh and Bone trilogy by A J Dalton. But where did the term ‘necromancy’ come from and did necromancers ever really exist? During the Renaissance, a time of discovery of all sorts of new forms of learning in Europe, necromancy was classified as one of the seven ‘forbidden arts’. The word ‘necromancy’ itself is a compound of the Ancient Greek words for ‘dead body’ and ‘prophecy’. In its original sense it meant communication with the deceased – either by summoning their spirit as an apparition or raising them bodily – for the purpose of divination, imparting the means to foretell future events or discover hidden knowledge. Meddling with life and death in this way was seen as dangerous even at the time of often reckless discovery that was the Renaissance and it was not long before necromancers acquired a reputation as the very worst practitioners of the dark arts.